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  • Ran Ma


An “Incident”

When director Cong Feng was asked about “Shamans • Animals” eight years later, he half-jokingly confessed to me that “probably none of us participants care to remember it anymore.” Film critic Wang Xiaolu on the other hand reminisced how the Nanjing “incident” had shed light on some problems integral to the Chinese independent film community itself. “For sure, most of the signatories were, and still are, friends of mine,” he reassured me.

If we prefer the wording used by China Independent Film Festival and call the Manifesto an “incident”/shijian (although the festival’s own English translation is “event”), I believe what can be foregrounded is not necessarily the provocative nature of the items, but how the Manifesto can be grasped as a series of dynamic, autonomous happenings and events indexical of the disagreements within Chinese independent cinema, and how self-reflexive the independent film community could be/had been two decades since its birth in the early 1990s.

In his statement, Cong Feng mainly emphasized the disparate positionings between the independent filmmakers and the critics/theorists. As he declared (point No.7 of the Manifesto):

Critics cannot dictate history.

Critics should learn from filmmakers, and not pretend to be their mentors.

Artists teach themselves in the course of shooting their films; they establish their own

ethical principles.

Cong’s opinions were shared by other signatories such as Bai Budan, who interestingly claimed, “If theorists are the ones who can speak, and critics are the ones who can write, then the real thinkers are precisely those who neither speak nor write” (point No.15). Meanwhile, Ji Dan, one of the few female signatories, suggested, “We’re not trying to start a revolution. We’re trying to shake people awake (while we get drunk)” (point No.10).

While it is not wrong to view the filmmakers’ gesture as an “anti-elitist” and “anti-authoritarian” effort to disturb the power structure within the independent film community itself,[1] the Manifesto was not merely a confrontation between several disappointed documentary filmmakers vis-à-vis the in-circle “authorities.” We shall bear in mind that on the night when the Manifesto was made public (November 1), the signatories and many CIFF guests gathered at a café again to continue their unfinished dialogues for reaching mutual understanding. Although Lü Xinyu was regrettably not able to address the “challenges” face-to-face due to her early departure, she was quick to take advantage of the then newly emerged social-networking platforms like Sina Weibo (which came into being in 2009) to elucidate her points and respond to filmmakers who also extended their discussions online. To a certain degree, these social network-based debates made visible and made public several key issues apropos Chinese independent cinema and film culture through engaging a wider range of netizens/Weibo users, some of whom previously paid little attention to independent films.

The dissatisfaction expressed in the Manifesto indicated the perceived gap between the drastically changing landscape of independent (documentary) filmmaking in the PRC, and the somehow lagging-behind if not impoverished critiques and discourses produced to approach and to talk about these exciting, multi-layered scenarios. For example, although Chinese independent documentary is considered one of the most noteworthy socio-cultural phenomena and is passionately followed and discussed in the Anglophone academia and media-scape (one simply needs to review the English titles related to Chinese indie cinema in recent decades), the domestic reception of the Manifesto also underscored how, between the documentary practitioners, critics, and scholars, proper and sustained channels for dialogues and collaboration were yet to be established.

On a positive note, to address the insufficiency of independent film criticism and particularly the lack of a platform for independent (documentary) filmmakers to exchange ideas among themselves as well as with critics, academics, and audiences, in 2012, a group of fourteen independent documentarists, including Manifesto signatories like Xue Jianqiang, Cong Feng, Qiu Jiongjong, Guishuzhong, and Mao Chenyu, launched Film Auteur (dianying zuozhe), an open-access film quarterly that mainly relies on social media for circulation and publicity. These filmmakers/editorial members agreed to take turns in acting as guest editors to design the themes and organize contributions.

Film Auteur, having released its 18th issue in April 2018, has so far surveyed important issues on aesthetics, ethics, and politics related to Chinese independent cinema and especially documentaries. Despite its highlight on auteurs’ voices, the journal has increasingly become a collaborative project between image-makers, critics, academics, curators, and other stakeholders in the community. This quarterly even inspired the curatorial experiment of “Film Auteur Film Festival” (zuozhe dianyingjie), which was for the first time held in Shenzhen in 2016, and showcased works by several Film Auteur-related filmmakers.

What’s most challenging for such self-organized enterprises, though, might be how to promote transparency and equality without making it another isolationist gathering for a small circle. For instance, despite one issue on/by female auteurs (Issue No.4) having been edited by female documentarist Ma Li, gender equality and gender-related issues are yet to be better addressed at the journal, as well as within the independent filmmaking community.

Beginning of an end?

To understand the context and significance of “Shamans • Animals,” we need to re/turn to the changing/changed context of Chinese independent film (documentary) culture and its institutions into the new millennium. Though independent cinema was yet to be considered an industry in China, what could be observed by the end of the first decade of the 21st century were signs of diversification, professionalization, and institutionalization across various sectors of film production, circulation, and exhibition. Seen in hindsight, the 2011 Manifesto and the reactions it triggered signalled the “beginning of the end” apropos Chinese independent cinema as the latter’s “post-underground” transformations, which started around 2004, seemed to have entered a new stage in the years to follow.

For “post-underground,” one could look at how the year 2004 saw several previously blacklisted filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye, and Wang Xiaoshuai move “above-ground” to make their first features legitimized by the state censor, namely through obtaining screening permits (known as the “Dragon Seal” or long biao) from the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (1998–2013; currently the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television).

Nevertheless, the world of independent documentary has not followed exactly the same trajectory, partially due to the political implications of the documentary genre regarding how the act of filmmaking itself potentially intervenes in the intertwined socio-political scapes and power relations in contemporary China, a topic that cannot be perfectly detailed here. The fact that indie documentaries have been rarely released in domestic theatres is not simply due to difficulties in obtaining the “Dragon Seal.” Some filmmakers have specifically chosen to only submit their works to international film festivals.

It is, however, noticeable that into the 2000s, it was not only transnational entities such as CNEX (short for China Next, founded in 2007 by Taiwanese producers) that came into being specifically aiming to cultivate documentary talents and finance promising projects from across Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China (and other overseas regions). Also, the early 2010s saw bolder experiments by Jia Zhangke, Fan Lixin, and Yung Chang (the latter two of whom are based in Canada) to screen documentaries at limited numbers of domestic theaters.

Looked at in retrospect, “Shamans • Animals” would not have become possible if independent film festivals like the CIFF had not been permitted to exist (by censorship, regulating organs, and various levels of government) since the early 2000s.[2] Put in context, the relatively relaxed socio-political and economic milieu of that time provided breathing space for the loosely connected “circle” of Chinese independent cinema to build up its own community and engage a wider public within China, mainly through an extensive grassroots network of independent film festivals and their connected entities of film circulation and exhibition.

Film scholar and veteran independent film producer Zhang Xianmin once claimed that a golden time for Chinese independent cinema (and for China’s independent film festivals) “has never arrived.” It may not be too surprising that in the years following the Manifesto, several of the earliest independent festivals in China, respectively taking place in Nanjing (CIFF), Kunming (Yunnan Multicultural Visual Festival or YunFest, 2003–2013), and Beijing (Beijing Independent Film Festival, est. 2010; a merger of two Beijing-based indie festivals) were forced to close or go into semi-hibernation under official pressure. Currently Beijing and Nanjing compromised with alternative formats of exhibition, sometimes with only a “Call for Entry” and “List of Awardees” announced on social media, but no public screenings regularly arranged.

Nevertheless, as Markus Nornes keenly observes, new public space is now also being carved out as old and new film festivals held in Shanghai, Pingyao (est. 2017, curated by Jia Zhangke and Marco Müller), and Hangzhou (est. 2017, a documentary festival organized by the China Academy of Art) are taking the initiative to cultivate new talents and showcase exciting independent documentary works.[3] Are we witnessing the “beginning of another beginning” of Chinese independent cinema? Might the changed dynamics and power structure give birth to another Manifesto? I have much reservation towards any too-rosy prediction about the future. It is true that however whimsical the state regulation over cinema might be, with the exponential growth of social media in China and the permeation of all sorts of screens and networked digital platforms in people’s everyday lives, it is simply impossible to keep independent films away from their viewers. Meanwhile, for some indie works with the “Dragon Seal,” it is pressures from the market that pose a real challenge. As we celebrate signals for possible “better” changes, the question still remains whether, when, where, and how disagreements within and beyond the indie film community will be allowed to emerge.

[1] See Sabrina Yu Qiong & Lydia Wu Dan. “The China Independent Film Festival and Chinese Independent Film Festivals: Self-Legitimization and Institutionalization.” 2017. In Chinese Film Festivals: Sites of Translation. Edited by Chris Berry, and Luke Robinson. New York: New York: Palgrave Macmillan US. Pp.169–191

[2] Intriguingly, it was also at the 8th CIFF that experiments in screening independent films (mainly fictions) secured with the “Dragon Seal,” namely state-sanctioned, independently produced films, were launched.

[3] Refer to Nornes, Markus. “Filmless Festivals and Dragon Seals: Independent Cinema in China.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 72, Number 3, pp.78–86.

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